Researchers are racing against the clock to see if a rapidly spreading coronavirus variant threatens the efficacy of COVID vaccinations.
Medics at a South African infectious-disease unit where a new strain of COVID is spreading rapidly. South African researchers are working hard to track down a new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The variant contains several of the changes reported in other variants, including Delta, and it appears to be spreading rapidly across South Africa. One of the top priorities is to keep a closer eye on the variant as it spreads: it was discovered earlier this month in Botswana and was later discovered in a visitor arriving in Hong Kong from South Africa.
AFRICA: Scientists are looking for a highly modified Omicron variety.
Scientists are also attempting to determine whether the variant can avoid immune responses elicited by vaccines, as well as whether it causes more or less severe disease than other variants. "We're flying at warp speed," says Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose lab is testing the variant's ability to evade immunity from vaccines and prior infections. There have been reports of reinfections and cases in people who have been vaccinated, but Moore says it's "too early to tell anything at this point." "There's a lot we don't know about this variation," Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said on November 25 at a press conference held by the country's health authority.
"The mutation profile is alarming, but we must now conduct research to determine the significance of this variant and what it means for pandemic response." On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the strain, known as B. 1. 1. 529, as a variation of concern and named it Omicron based on the advice of scientists from the WHO's Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution. Omicron joins Delta, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma on the current WHO list of variants of concern. Researchers are also interested in seeing if the strain has the potential to spread internationally, potentially causing new waves of infection or exacerbating Delta's current surges.